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The “Mandela Effect”

Sep. 20, 2015 by | Comments (29)
Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa meets with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005. And yet, according to some people's memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa met with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005—and yet, according to some people’s memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

At Chapman University I teach an undergraduate course called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist. One of the course requirements is that each student must do an 18-minute TED-style talk. It’s a good exercise in learning to give public talks, as well as organize your thoughts in a manner conducive to both critical thinking and clear communication. The first student TED talk was by Taryn Honeysett on something called “The Mandela Effect,” of which I was unfamiliar. The name comes from the mistaken belief that the great statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) died while in prison in the 1980s, and it is characterized by a group of people who all misremember something in a similar manner.

The effect gained a cultural toehold in an Internet forum discussion over the proper spelling of a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstain Bears, when a number of people insisted the correct spelling was Berenstein. (The series began in 1962, with the first book edited and published by Dr. Seuss—aka Ted Seuss Geisel.) Other examples of The Mandela Effect involve the number of states in the United States (50 or 52, with a sizable number of people believing it is 52, probably mixing states in the U.S. with cards in a deck), the correct spelling of the word definitely (or definitly), and people’s recall of what Darth Vader said in Star Wars: “Luke, I’m your father” or “No, I’m your father” (it’s the latter, although I too remember it by the more effecting version that addresses the subject).

The Berenstain Bears have entertained and informed children for over half a century. The jolly anthropomorphic ursines were named for their creators, Jan and Stan Beyerstain. Are memories of the alternate spelling "Beyerstein" evidence of an alternate universe?

The Berenstain Bears have entertained and informed children for over half a century. The jolly anthropomorphic ursines were named for their creators, Jan and Stan Berenstain. Are memories of the alternate spelling “Berenstein” evidence of an alternate universe? (Promotional image from Random House, via Wikimedia Commons)

So what? So plenty, say some who believe in the “Many-Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics (first proffered by Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt) that allows for parallel universes. In this interpretation, whenever a quantum event occurs the universe splits into parallel universes and timelines. These little glitches, believers in The Mandela Effect say, are signs of other universes and timelines coming into contact with ours. According to a “paranormal consultant” named Fiona Broome, for example, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, each event in each one of which is on its own timeline. If these universes are truly parallel then these timelines cannot come into contact with one another, but if they are not parallel then they might occasionally interact. Evidence for such connections may be found in these common (mis)memories.

In our universe, for example, Nelson Mandela died in 2013, but people who believe he died in prison in the 1980s are not misremembering Mandel’s actual death but instead are accurately reporting what really happened in a universe in which Mandela did die in prison. Likewise, in another universe there was a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstein Bears (although this would mean that the authorsStan and Jan Berenstain—also had a different last name spelling), the United States consists of 52 states (Puerto Rico and Cuba?), and Star Wars includes the line “Luke, I’m your father.” (I wonder if, in one of these other universes, the prequel films were not as awful as they were in our universe?) Oh, and in some universes imaginary numbers are real. Cool.

None of us likes to believe that a memory we are confident is accurate is, in fact, completely wrong.

Already a good skeptic only three weeks into the semester, my student Taryn Honeysett offered a more rational and reasonable explanation for why people believe in The Mandela Effect: false memories, memory confabulation, social reinforcement of beliefs, the need to effect the world and control our lives, and the desire to believe that we are connected to something greater than ourselves (and what could feel grander than believing you are in contact with an entire parallel universe?!). We know from decades of research by cognitive psychologists that human memory is deeply flawed, constantly edited, and resembles not at all an audio/video recording device that can play back an event on the screen of our minds that is then accurately reported by a homunculus watching the scene replayed. None of us likes to believe that a memory we are confident is accurate is, in fact, completely wrong.

Fiona Broome, for example, says she remembers Nelson Mandela’s 1980s death “clearly, complete with news clips of his funeral, the mourning in South Africa, some rioting in cities, and the heartfelt speech by his widow. Then, I found out he was still alive.” At first she thought “Oh, I must have misunderstood something on the news,” but then at a DragonCon event she heard that others had the same memory as she had about Mandela’s death, and from there she began to construct a parallel universes explanation. (All the more reason why we need Skepticality host Derek Colanduno’s SkepTrack programming at DragonCon!) “These aren’t simple errors in memory,” Broome concluded. “They seem to be full-constructed incidents (or sequential events) from the past. They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness.” Unfortunately Broome does not tell us what she (or cognitive scientists) think is the “normal range” of memory, but from this premise she asserts that the fact that “other people seem to have identical memories” is evidence of “parallel realities, quantum science, real-life ‘Sliders’ experiences, and alternate history.”

The “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics is a legitimate theory, even if it is unproven and probably unprovable. But taking such a theory and grafting it onto something as mundane as memory confabulation and the human desire for transcendence and inter-connectedness becomes a fine example of how science slides into pseudoscience, and why we need skepticism grounded in solid cognitive science of how the mind works.


Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University, and the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Read Michael’s other posts on this blog.

29 responses to “The “Mandela Effect””

  1. Max says:

    It’s not a glitch in the Matrix like déjà vu?

  2. James R says:

    upon visiting her website, I quickly glanced down the list of these ‘effects’ and stopped abruptly at the one (which appears to be the most discussed) regarding a portrait of Henry VIII holding a turkey leg. I immediately thought “well this one must be wrong, this painting *does* exist”, as I could clearly ‘see’ it in my minds eye, in wonderful detail, and had no doubt I’d seen it several times in the distant past (high school textbook perhaps, 35 years ago?).

    Much to my astonishment, it appears there is no proof of such a painting (although many people agree quite closely on the half-dozen or so key characteristics), and the possible explanations consist of either 1) the painting does exist, was never scanned, and is now in someone’s private possession, or 2) it never existed, but rather all the ‘supporting’ evidence (of which there is quite a bit) caused people to ‘construct’ this particular painting in their mind. I left the topic amused and perplexed, strongly leaning towards solution 1). And then an odd thing happened … over the next several days I found myself no longer able to ‘see’ the painting in my mind. What had once been something as vivid to me as The Mona Lisa, had disappeared.

    I find this occurs quite often after awakening from a dream – the imagery is so real and so detailed, yet hours later I can only remember generalities.

  3. Vivek narain says:

    A genuine skeptic is a delightful person,but lackeys and shills pollute the ambience.

    • Syd Foster says:

      And yet it is you who has stated bald-faced falsehoods in your claim above about the contents of the short story Dawn by Leslie Charteris. You ignored my comment exposing your lies, and now here you are claiming that anyone who doesn’t blindly follow your bull;shitting is a lackey and a shill. None of these people commenting here are critical thinkers, let alone skeptics, so I’m sure your cowardly comment is addressed to me. You, sir, are a charlatan.

      • Naomi says:

        Hi Syd, please can you and your fellow critical thinkers have a look at what is going on.

      • Vivek narain says:

        As the king,J.H.Chase says,hit them where it hurts.You have obviously not gone through the meticulosly researched,’DAWN’ topic in athletic yes sir killer Mac aka Mac Wallace,the slender jockey type Oswald,Selden alias Sydney Greenstreet,a night club operator in ‘Casa Blanca’ aka Jack Ruby a night club operator,Casa Blanca is portugese for ‘white house’.Both fire a single shot from .38 revolver.

        • Syd Foster says:

          All of that is nonsense. I guess you think the Bible Code is true as well, huh? I guess you see faces in clouds and imagine they are speaking to you? The human mind and memory are extremely fallible. The mind is a pattern seeking thing, and this sort of self-delusion you are practicing here is the reason scientific method was developed in the first place, to avoid the sort of time-wasting false patterns such as you have manufactured here. Memories are not recordings in the brain, every time you remember something you are recreating the sequences that make up the “memory”, and unconsciously changing and adding and deleting details. The idea that you could accurately remember something from a universe before it changed is so laughable that it wouldn’t even make a good science fiction story!

          But even if you think you have found something, the way you presented it was that these things were plainly in the text, when in fact they are so obscure as to be no more real than the post-dict interpretations of the bullshit that Nostradamus left to gullible dupes. It is your dishonest claim in the first post you made above which shows you to be knowingly trying to mislead. I did in fact read the blog on the website you mention, and found it to be worse than obscure. It certainly does not do what you claim.

          However you spin it, you are a liar, like a politician or a lawyer, slippery as a fish and misleading. To what end? I’m sure you will eventually find a way of spinning a scam and milking your dupes for money. And frankly, anyone so arrogant as to think they can remember changes in the universe (absurd notion if you had any scientific education) and ignore what we know about how unreliable human perceptions and memory are, they deserve what they get for exposing themselves to the likes of you and the others perpetrating this nonsense.

          Get real and do something to make this world a better place, instead of wasting your time and energy playing make believe. If you want a period of relaxation, read some good science fiction! This is just painfully dull.

        • Vivek narain says:

          This is a dog eats dog world,you can’t go on socking others without getting punched in the solar plexus.Where I live punks like you get kicked on the bum.

        • Syd Foster says:

          Vivek Narain, I’m speaking truth with integrity and calling you out as a liar and an opportunistic exploiter of gullible people, and your response is to threaten physical violence. That says it all. To the rest of you, be warned and steer clear of people like him. You are all asking to be exploited. Get some scientific education, and start using your brains to think critically, which mens being honest with yourself and not pursuing wishful thinking combined with thoughtless swallowing of flash nonsense and unsupported comments like the first one above by Vivek Narain. I went and read the story, and found that he was lying. Then I read the blog post, and found it to neither support his claims or even make any kind of sense at all.

          I leave you to your foolishness.

  4. H says:

    The naysayers are calling this all “confabulation.” They apparently possess the IQ of a chimpanzee and can’t see the pattern. Do not buy into their deceit. As either they are being deceitful or lack intellect.

  5. Naomi says:

    And San Diego, Florida, Mongolia, Madagascar, Italy???

  6. Vivek narain says:

    And Sri Lanka

  7. Naomi says:

    How many of you know the book and movie “Interview with a Vampire”? WRONG

    Is the spelling of this word correct? -“dilemna” WRONG

    The movie quote “If you build it they will come” WRONG

    Please have a google. There are many more.

    Has anyone looked at a map on the internet or an old atlas lately. Please check out the size/shape/location of Australia, Germany, Poland, Cuba, the Arctic etc.

    I know this sounds strange and I have no explanation. Please look for yourself.

    • Max says:

      Yes “dilemna” looks very wrong.
      Now kids will blame bad spelling on Quantum Physics? Or all wrong answers for that matter. “It’s the right answer in an alternate universe.”

  8. Vivek narain says:

    ‘DAWN’ a 1947 story by Leslie Charteris does give veridical proof of precognition.DAWN is one of the topics of and accurately describes and names the famous trio involved in JFK assassination,16 years before the event.

    • Syd Foster says:

      Except that everything you said is wrong! The lead character at one point uses the name “Oswald” as a pejorative misnomer in order to wind up one of the other characters, but none of the descriptions are particularly relevant to either him or Jack Ruby.

      Claiming that the use of one of the surnames of people involved in an incident shows predestination is the most extreme example of cherry-picking I’ve ever seen!

      It would be an absurd joke if you weren’t taking it seriously. You should be ashamed of yourself for spreading lies in the support of a nascent scam.

  9. Angela says:

    I first became aware that something was strange a few years back after finding that the Berenstein bears head change their name. And recently I’ve been made aware Snow White’s, mirror, mirror on the wall. Although very intriguing I allowed myself to feel like there was a possibility my memory was flawed. Last night something happened that completely shook me to the core.

    My grandparents raised me as a small child. My grandfather was a father to me. Long before I came around he was a commercial artist in Michigan. This is before the days of royalties.

    As a child, grandpa would take me in the stores and show me different things that he is done. He was always the most proud of the Kellogg’s logo. And the left hand side of a Kellogg’s cereal box there was an icon that looked a lot like the NBC News logo. It had a tail with a different colors and it was a rooster. As a child I remember thinking how cool it was. And everytime we went in a store grandpa pointed it out. That’s why by the time I was a teenager even though I’d be like, “yes, that’s really cool,” it wasn’t a big of a deal anymore. Until, I had children and as soon as they were old enough to comprehend it. I showed them that logo every time we went in the store!

    Last night, my youngest child was painting and I told her the story of grandpa. I want to go show her grandpa’s pride and joy the, “iconic rooster!” I was completely socked to find it had changed! After searching for about an hour. I was even more shocked to find out it never existed! I immediately went to into my teenagers rooms and ask them to recall the memory. Thank God, they remember it just the same as I do! of course, my husband remembers my bragging rights too! Please tell me someone else has noticed that the Kellogg’s rooster has changed! There used to be a little icon in the left-hand corner on every Kellogg’s box. It is now wiped from the slate of the cosmic memory!

    Because it was so near and dear to my heart I will never forget the image. It is burned into my memory! Now I know for absolute certain that something is seriously going on! I want answers. I need answers! What am I going to tell my grandchildren? Your grandfather was a commercial artist who designed famous logos that are now missing in space and time and no one remembers them? Does anyone else remember the logo that looked a lot like the NBC News peacock?

    • James says:

      I do some what remember a different logo, but am not sure what changed about it so it is very vague. Did you research the designer of the current logo and any incarnation of the logo to see if it was still your grandfather who would’ve designed the altered logo in this time stream?

    • Max says:

      The corner of every Kellogg’s box? I know the Corn Flakes logo is a rooster. Here’s the box from 1963, but it’s not like the NBC logo.

    • matt says:

      just do a google image search for “kellogg logo rooster” there is still a rooster like that but it is only on kellogg corn flakes but not the other cereals

  10. wingke6 says:

    Ask people who have been to the Statue of Liberty if they enjoyed the view from the torch. A vast majority of people will claim that they have been up to the torch. In fact, no person alive (tourist, not Statue of liberty worker or some other special privilege person), has been up to the torch. It was closed permanently to the public in 1916 for safety reasons.

    So, is this an example of the Mandela Effect? Does the misremembering element of the effect include seemingly deliberate embellishment?

  11. Max says:

    So Brian Williams was just remembering an alternate universe where he was on the helicopter that was hit. Now it all makes sense.

  12. Nigel Wyn says:

    I work at a TV station. With a little coercion, we got a colleague to believe that we had an elephant visit our news studio, some time in the 90s, and that he was there. We told him we remembered him patting the elephant and remarking on the roughness of its’ skin. Now, he believes that there was an elephant.

  13. KurC says:

    Well, if by “theory” You mean “scientific theory” then no, it can’t be considered legitimate theory considering that it is unprovable don’t You think?

    • Ben says:

      This CAN be tested.

      It would involve setting up some apparatus that relied on a quantum, random effect to produce a range of possible experiences, but with known but variable probabilities.

      For example, a device that measures the spin of an atom, rigged to a light that for X% of possible measurements is on, and for 100-X% is off. The controller should be able to set “X” to different values for a run of tests.

      Get test subjects, put them in sealed room, activate the device.
      After the test, count the number who remember the light activating, compare with the number who do not. Compare with instrument recording showing whether or not the light actually activated.

      Reset the test, change the value of X, repeat with new subjects.

      IF memory can be effected by events in alternate universes that exist as a result of the multiple worlds theory, THEN the proportion of people experiencing an alternate memory should be affected by the probability of the event being remembered actually taking place. More test subjects should remember the light turning on when the probability was 80% than when it was 20%, even if in “our universe” it did not turn on either time.

      If that occurs, I would consider it strong evidence.

    • LK says:

      A legitimate scientific theory means that scientifically it could be deduced. Being probaly unprovable doesn’t make it illiegitimate

    • Vivek narain says:

      KurC, You’re right MWI is a postulate,not a theory.H.E.3 was ridiculed for it.Daniel schetman with his empirical evidence of quasi crystals was hounded out of his team by no less a luminary than Linus Pauling,only to be awarded with Noble decades later.Pedants often deny reality when it is sitting on their laps.

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